Reflections Before Voting in Israeli Election

Jan 25

A Privilege and Responsibility 

11 Shevat 5773 / January 22, 2013

I am about to do what more than 100 generations – untold millions – of Jews could not: help shape the future of a sovereign, democratic Jewish nation. 

As an American lawyer and historian, when I head to the polls in the US I think not only about the issues and candidates, and my choices, but more generally about the great privilege and responsibility of voting in American elections.  Still, voting for the first time as a citizen of Israel is sure to be profoundly moving. 

How should I vote?  Israelis do not vote for candidates or a government, but rather for party seats in the 120-member Knesset.   Only after that vote is tallied does the President (elected by the Knesset) task the leader of the victorious party (expected to garner 30-35 seats) with forming a governing coalition.  Only then will the composition of the next government become clear.   So, in voting, one is faced with a tactical as well as a strategic decision.  Not just which party best reflects one’s views, but how one’s vote will translate into actual influence in a potential coalition.

It’s complicated.  According to the polls, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party will likely win the most votes, with him thus retaining the Prime Ministership and the right to form the coalition.  His party touts its accomplishments during the past four years, including instituting free education from age three; increasing soldier stipends; reducing cell phone prices; maintaining Israel’s economic strength (despite a burgeoning budget deficit) compared with other Western democracies – and standing up to international pressure for “appeasement.”  Likud has been dropping in the polls, but has been lately boosted by resentment here about recent press reports that President Obama privately said that Israel “doesn’t know its own best interests.” 

The election, then, appears to be mostly about attempting to influence which parties Netanyahu will invite coalition.   The pre-election buzz here in Jerusalem, especially in English-speaking circles and media, has focused on the young, vibrant Naftali Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party.  An American immigrant, Bennett served in an elite IDF unit.  He is socially reform-minded (“we have to stop fighting each other and must bring Haredi and Arabs into society”), somewhat progressive as a religious conservative, and politically very right-wing.  He believes that the “peace process” is dead and that Israel should annex portions of the West Bank. 

Political commentators speculate whether, even if (as expected) Bennett’s party does well at the polls, Netanyahu will ask him to join the government.  Bennett is seen as a potential rivalry for the top job, and his participation in the government would present obstacles for any “concessions” in the peace process – the principal reason Bennett has such support among Zionists. 

The Labor Party presents itself as Centrist and the only real alternative to Netanyahu.  Led by Shelly Yachimovich, it emphasizes social justice and reforms to close the economic gap and burden on the middle class.  Labor sees the need to move forward with a “two-state solution” in order to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel, and points to the recent vote in the UN (Palestinian observer state status) as an example of Netanyahu’s “failures.”  

Somewhat further to the left, a new party “Yesh Atid” (“There is a future”) led by former TV news anchor (and politically inexperienced) Yair Lapid, urges the separation of Judaism and politics; advocates universal national service; and claims that it “leads the battle against religious extremism” and racism against Ethiopians and Russians.   Zippi Livni – who describes herself as the only leader in the Centrist block with governing experience – and her party “HaT’nuah” (“The Movement”) support a “Two-state” solution (arguing that annexing the West Bank, as Naftali Bennett seeks, would result in Israel becoming a state without a Jewish majority or an apartheid state); cuts in the defense budget to improve the education and social gap; an end to alleged government “capitulation to the Ultra Orthodox;” and an immediate restart to peace negotiations.   But there is great skepticism in the Center and Right that the Palestinians will ever accept a Jewish state on any terms.   

Many other parties (18 on the ballot) take positions elsewhere along the political spectrum and/or focus on specific issues, such as the environment, reducing housing prices, and educational reform.  Meritz says that it is the only party without leaders charged with corruption; that “we need a State of the Jews, not a Jewish state;” that 8 million Israelis shouldn’t be trying to police 3.5 million Palestinians, so we should “leave (the Palestinians) on the other side of the border and get on with developing Israel.”   Strong Israel argues that we are in a religious war with Islam, not a territorial war; that our successive attempts over 90 years to divide the land with the Arabs have just made things worse, that G-d promised us this land; and that we should terminate the “Muslim occupation,” Jordan being the Palestinian state. 

Shas – usually seen in America by Reform and Conservative Jews as an Ultra-Orthodox party -- sees itself as a moderate bridge between the secular and the Haredi.  Am Shalem is a small party led by a brave Haredi rabbi (castigated and even spit-upon at public appearances) who is very progressive and inclusive toward non-Orthodox Jews, and who argues that religious Jews must work and have secular as well as religious education.

I have presented here only the briefest capsule summaries of positions espoused by some of the parties.  But even these show that the choices are genuine and diverse; far more so, it seems than the choice of “blue” or “red” in America.  Although Israel’s parliamentary government, in which no party has sufficient seats to control, does afford disproportionate power to small parties, it also helps assure an inclusive government in which a broad range of views are not only heard but must be reckoned with.  

If Netanyahu does gain a third term as Prime Minister, will he seek a coalition with Centrist/Leftist, with Rightist, or with a mix of parties?   (Thus, the contention that one sometimes hears among American Jews that “the Ultra-Orthodox control Israel” is much too simplistic.)  And how long will any coalition last?   As of now, these are open and dynamic questions that Israelis – and much of the world – will watch closely during the next week and beyond.

Israel has many problems, but also great promise.  Its imperfect but vibrant democracy is a source of both.   I see slow but definite progress on economic and social issues, including greater religious and gender equality.  But for me, as for many here, defense and security issues necessarily continue to predominate.  It seems obvious, but we must always remember that Israel exists in a precarious neighborhood with avowed enemies all around and an unfriendly (at best) significant minority.   Even though I feel physically safe in Israel (except crossing the street!), it definitely does not feel the same as sitting in Southern California – and each glance at a map of Israel reinforces this.  Israel is a miniscule island in a menacing ocean.  How can my vote not reflect this?

More generally, as I look at Jewish history, I can’t help but be reminded that three times previously, we have been unable to maintain sovereignty over this land.   In casting my vote, I thus ask myself: which party’s policies will afford Jews the best chance of doing so this time, or at least of holding onto the land for as long as possible?  That, I feel, is what I must decide when I stand before the table with slips of paper on which each party’s initials are written, select one to put into an envelope, and place into the ballot box.   I am very grateful for the opportunity, and may my and every other vote help ensure Israel’s survival!   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb